Most distance runners have been asked by non-runners: "How far is that marathon you'll be running?" We all have our own saucy answers. I'm sure somewhere there's a smart aleck who replies: "It's just a standard marathon." "Ummm ... Oh! Great!"
One day a man at the gym asked me as I whizzed by him: "How did you do in that marathon?" "Which one?" "Ummm ... the last one." "Oh that — 188 miles." "Errr ... ummm ... Great!" I told him the truth but gave him no comprehensible information. I didn't have time to stop and explain.
Jim Puckett has dubbed the marathon the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, an oddball distance that does not relate in round numbers by any standard scale, and therefore has come to be regarded as its own unit of measure. But like helpless Americans who can't compute things in metric or who ask "How much is that in real money?" when faced with foreign (non-US) currency, non-runners who accept the marathon unit still find it hard to deal with.
But we runners are attached to the word "marathon" because of its connotations of being the Ultimate Challenge, and most runners, particularly those who are strongly testosterone fueled, like to believe they are capable of rising to and conquering that Ultimate Challenge, regarding it as nothing less even when there are 30,000 other people doing it with them on the same day and in the same place, hundreds of whom have conquered that Ultimate Challenge dozens of times before, many of them ten or more times in the past year. Face it — what we really like is to be able to walk around in public with t-shirts that say "Marathon" on them, and hope non-runners notice.
Even ultrarunners use the word "marathon" to describe their races in a comparative way. We run, not marathons, but ULTRAmarathons. Among ourselves we just refer to them as "ultras." And a few, finding ultras to be insufficiently superlative, run super-ultramarathons.
Whazzat? Does it mean we use the distance of a marathon as a standard unit of measure and go some multiple of that?
Nope. Not on yer life. Well ... sometimes, but rarely.
An ultramarathon is an event with all the connotations of a standard marathon — still the Ultimate Challenge — but on a grander scale, sometimes much grander.
"How much grander?" you ask. Well, to ultrarunners it means anywhere from 18.4% grander on up to whatever you can think of, including running all the way around the world, except across the oceans, as fast as you can. Given the earth's equatorial circumference as 24901.55 miles, and that the distances across the oceans are generally compensated for by zig-zagging across continents, a trans-world run would amount to 949.76 times the Ultimate Challenge — a mighty improvement on Ultimacy if I do say so myself.
But get this ... and herein lies the real inspiration for this essay: Runners are so possessed by the word "marathon" that they even use it to describe events that don't qualify to bear the appellative.
So we also have half marathons, which of course are not marathons at all, but exactly half the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, or put another way, Half of the Ultimate Challenge. Hmmm.
With such a description, one may still claim to be conquering the Ultimate Challenge, but — almost parenthetically — only half of it. How many runners do you know who like to tell people that they love to run races that are 13 miles, 192 yards, 18 inches long? Who would even think to do such a thing? If there is a distance that is even stupider than the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, it's half that distance.
Not only do people line up by the thousands to run that distance every weekend — they keep world records for that distance, competed for by runners of the highest stature such as Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. And they call them marathons. Ummm ... half-marathons, that is.
Half craziness doesn't stop there. It extends into the ultra world as well. Recently I downloaded an application for the Lean Horse 100-mile race, and noted that in the race's panoply of offerings they include — not a 50-mile race, but — yes, you guessed it: a Half-Hundred! Wooo!!!
I love it. I'm still giggling over the discovery. First time I've seen it, but I'm sure it won't be the last.
"So how far is that hundred-mile race you're running next August?" "Ummm. It's fifty miles." Classic. (I myself am planning on running the whole hundred. Well ... probably walking half of it, but that's a hypocrisy of a different color.)
In my several years of multiday running I have often thought about what a great experience it would be to compete in a six-day race. I've been thinking about that a lot recently, now that it's 46 hours until the start of my sixth consecutive 72-hour outing at Across the Years, wondering if I'll ever have an opportunity to run a six-day race.
Hey, I know! In 2007 we'll bill the 72-hour race at Across the Years as — yep — Half a Six-Day! Perfect.